Life after Life is a very clever book, but did I actually enjoy it rather than appreciate it? I’m really not sure. It actually made me feel very sad. There is an awful lot of dying in it. People are bombed, raped and murdered, drowned, die of flu, or commit suicide. Their fates differ depending upon which of Ursula’s lives we are reading. Ursula appears to have many iterations of her life, some happier than others. She’s a rape victim and illegal abortion survivor, a long-serving civil servant, or a battered wife. She’s the wife of a German lawyer; she’s a friend of Eva Braun. In only one of her lives is she a mother, and she and her daughter take cyanide in the wasteland of Berlin at the end of the second world war. At times, in the various narratives, Ursula seems aware of her other lives, and as a child she is treated by a psychiatrist for her problems with foreknowledge and déja vu. But this isn’t a novel about mental disturbance or a variation on multiple personality disorder.
Atkinson herself says, “People always ask you what a book is ‘about’ and I generally make something up as I have no idea what a book is about (it’s ‘about’ itself) but if pressed I think I would say Life After Life is about being English (on reflection perhaps that’s what all my books are about). Not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations. (http://www.randomhousesites.co.uk/TWP/kateatkinson/LifeAfterLifeNotes.pdf ). Atkinson does indeed capture that memory of Englishness that one associates with golden summer afternoons and strawberries for tea as well as that whole spirit of the blitz that even those of us who never experienced the blitz are sometimes nostalgic about, especially when we think about today’s litter-strewn streets, boarded up houses, empty mills and factories, lager louts, youth unemployment, and general social alienation.
In the same piece referenced above, Atkinson admits to “the ghost of Forster [being] always at my back,” which I found interesting because the world of Fox Corner did remind me of the world of Windy Corner in Forster’s A Room With a View or of the world of Howard’s End: a once rural but growing suburban world of the Home Counties before the 1914-18 war. It also reminded me greatly of the world described by my mother of her own childhood between the two world wars, a childhood that to me had always seemed idyllic in comparison with my own first in post-war austerity and then in the hedonistic swinging sixties. Her childhood wasn’t idyllic, of course: boarding school at six, lisle stockings and liberty bodices, a host of childhood diseases, and coping with life in an eighteenth century rectory in the middle of the country with no connected electricity and water that had to be pumped into a cistern at the top of the house every morning. No wonder my mother choses a tiny apartment for her old age. Yet even she, too is nostalgic about long summer days and the freedom to wander the countryside alone safely all day, and about the regularity of a quiet, rural middle-class life. She also remembers watching the red burning sky the night that Coventry, forty miles or so to the east, burned.
This world of our parents’ and grandparents’ pasts, a world moulded by the two world wars, is the world of Life after Life. Atkinson evokes a time we are perhaps a little embarrassed not to have shared. Given all they endured, they must have been so much stronger than us our parents and grandparents. We know them only as our families, as ordinary people with ordinary strengths and weaknesses, but we have this sneaking suspicion that they had something that we don’t have. They did something, and their past must have been a golden age, or at least silver in comparison with our own.
Perhaps it is this unsatisfied yearning for an alternative past, not all the death, that left me feeling, for want of a better word, sad. Perhaps mine is the sometimes self-indulgent but not uncommon melancholy of all who look back and ask “what if?” Certainly, Life after Life is a novel about the second world war and how even the survivors are still casualties of that war. But it is more than that. It is a novel about the contingent nature of all life, a novel about all the “if onlys” and “what ifs”: if only I had done this instead of that; if only I had been a few minutes earlier, or later; if only I had crossed the road, or not; what if I had made this choice not that one.
Some things in the novel are constant. No matter in which narrative Atkinson’s characters appear, whether they are shot down in flames or live, they are who they are. Maurice, for example, is always the arrogant, self-interested brother; Teddy, the one most lovable and most loved. Ursula in all her lives is Ursula: bright, good at languages, independent, never quite giving all to the men who claim to love her or not, often alone.
Dr. Kellet tries to explain to a ten year old Ursula Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati: “‘a simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good’” (165). One is tempted to believe that this acceptance is Atkinson’s conclusion. Why else deal with so many alternatives, so many “what ifs” and “if onlys.” At times, it seems that the heart of the book is Dr. Kellet’s explanation of Nietzsche and Pindar: “Become what you are” and “become such as you are, having learned what that is” (165). Perhaps, understanding and acceptance of oneself frees one from all the “what ifs” and “if onlys.” The past is the past.
However, there is one area, where one can go back and rewrite the narrative: fiction. What Life after Life emphasizes quite forcefully is the power of the author, to shape, define, and tell a story. Atkinson gives us many stories and tells the various narratives in sometimes rather random order. She ends with a return yet again to the beginning, Ursula’s birth, suggesting that we could spin this tale in yet another version, and yet another.
As I said at the beginning, this is a very clever novel. It is not co-incidental that the Todd family (Todd being an old English name for Fox as Atkinson tell us herself in the novel) live at Fox Corner. Lives shift and change shape in this novel, and it is as difficult to pin down the narratives as it is difficult to pin down foxes, traditional symbols of wiliness and craft. I found myself, too, wracking my brains to remember what little I fuzzily remember of probability theory and “spooky action at a distance.” I think one could “do” something very interesting with the novel relating physics with literature here. But perhaps I am missing the point by trying to make sense of it all. Perhaps I should just accept. Perhaps not. All this thinking about the novel has certainly removed any vestiges of melancholia induced by the work, and I was glad to see that Atkinson has returned somewhat to the ambiance of her earlier works such as Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which I tended to prefer to the Jackson Brodie Novels.